Review by Cassandra da Costa
Certain novels can seduce you. They play a music that seems to have been composed in the basement of your childhood home. The energy that courses through them seems to have reverberated from your own quotidian reality. Each thought or declaration is not only a revelation, but an affirmation. The book is as close to you as any external matter could be, so it follows then, that it needs to be re-read with a bit of distance. Now that you know the story, any preconceived notions about characters have been subdued by perspective. It has been a few weeks and you are feeling differently; you do not need the novel to validate anything about you as a person, as an artist, as a mother. The book becomes more of itself.
After my first read of Susan Choi’s My Education I found myself literally blinded by tears. At the time, they felt like the kind of tears that are proof of how you are alive. You read a book, you are moved, you have renewed the strength with which you live your life. It is not unlike the post-cinema feeling: emerging from the claustrophobic darkness then joining, on the sidewalk outside of the theater, a world that appears enhanced by better cinematography.
However, some days after those first tears, I started to do the work of thinking about the novel in order to write about it, and a confusion passed. I felt moved, but not changed. How could this be? What had I actually read? Naturally, I went back to the text, and after weeks of fruitless selective perusal, I re-read most of the novel.
The most immediate force in Choi’s novel is her protagonist and narrator, Regina Gottlieb, a precocious first year graduate student in English literature at a nameless northeastern university. As a character, she is riddled with a series of flaws including naïveté and narcissism—traits that are crucial to her wholeness on the page. Regina is a complex character whose story is the novel’s main focus, but at the same time, functions as a bridge between the reader and the world of the novel. When she begins her first semester of study, she is clueless and hesitant. All she knows of her new situation is that there is a professor, Nicolas Brodeur, who has a reputation for sleeping with his students. Even worse, he has been accused of coercing undergraduates. The description Regina gives us is comprehensive, but ultimately opaque:
That first time seeing him, even before being sure who he was, it was already clear that his attractiveness was mixed up with a great deal of ridiculousness. He wore a long duster coat, in the heat of September. His filthy blond hair stuck up and out in thatchy spikes from heavy use of some kind of pomade, as if it were 1982, not ’92, and he wore Lennon shades with completely black lenses, as if it were outdoors, not in, and overall, in his resemblance to a Joy Division poster, he comported himself as if twenty and not, as I’d come to find out, almost forty. Still he was the best-looking man, by a league, in the room and certainly the best-looking man I had seen in the flesh to that point in my life. […] And he must have realized; there was in his posture a kind of inverse vanity, a suggestion that he engaged in his sartorial ridiculousness out of some impatience with the effects of his beauty.
Although both the novel’s title and its narrator/protagonist insist that the latter manages to mature, to evolve as a human and gradually surpass her own shortsightedness, Regina’s way of seeing and describing the world never changes. Descriptions of people and settings are almost lists, often with useful but unessential information: “I pulled on a T-shirt and jeans and stepped into the hall. The house was perfectly quiet. I didn’t feel that slight alertness of the air that can tell us, even through a deep silence, that some unseen person is sitting nearby.” This is not to say that descriptions have to serve plot—on the contrary, it has been proven you can write an entire novel without one “essential” description and still have produced great literature (Joyce and Woolf, for instance). Rather, some of the sentences seem to be there because they fit the template. When re-reading My Education, I would have brief visions of Choi in a writing workshop. One of her classmates would not understand what was going on in a particular scene and would suggest that Choi include more imagery, more “atmosphere.” Choi would dutifully take note and thus a sentence like “Our landlocked northern hamlet turned out to be served by two tropical fish stores, as far apart from each other, one southward, one north, as if a noncompete pact had dictated the sites.”
Admittedly, in My Education, Choi’s narrative style is Regina’s narrative style. And on one hand, the choices make sense; Regina is a conventional learner, a precocious student, and is only half-heartedly studying to be an academic. None of her autobiographical accounts include any foray into eccentricity or even creativity. She is painted as a blank slate with clouded perceptions: where she should be noticing others, she only sees herself—specifically, in her love for Martha Hatlett, Brodeur’s wife and, fittingly, Regina’s first same-sex lover.
However, while this by-the-MFA-book’s narrative style serves the progression of the story (the reader receives her education right alongside Regina), it does not facilitate any intimacy between the reader and the world in which she is meant to be engulfed. The view is always retrospective, and, as a result, far ahead of itself. The problem with this is that our narrator is not omniscient and the thoughts and images she does reveal are not particularly insightful. I found myself wishing other characters—Dutra, Martha, and even Nicolas—were more present independently of how Regina saw them; her point of view simply did not feel sufficient.
It is clear from the start that Choi is a gifted writer, and it is perhaps her recognition of her own talents that gets in the way of a great novel. My Education is exemplary, but in the most literal sense of the word: it is a nearly perfect model of a good book. It has beautifully written sentences, strong character development, and an engaging storyline that steers away from sentimentality but still appeals to human emotion, but, like beautiful music sung slightly off key, is given the wrong voice.